The Bear Basin trail seems moments from vanishing, as if it—and we—are on the verge of being lost to civilization and reclaimed by the wilderness for all time. We perform the brushstroke. We swim downhill through dense overgrowth. We blindly muck through the ten-foot-high chamise brush like moles through earth.
The mountain lion’s growl is trapped in my chest—fluttering in there like a bird in a sack. We are hurrying, not panicked, but hurrying back down this Cheshire trail which appears and disappears like a slightly threatening smile deep in the Ventana Wilderness.
We are also many, long vertical miles from anywhere. I imagine the big cat stalking us: it obtains an angle through the dense foliage and breaks into a run; it leads with wide, powerful jaws and lacerating claws through the wall of overgrowth; it pounces on us with a dramatic crescendo of strings and bass and cymbals. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I plunge wildly through the thick, nearly impenetrable wall of brush that passes for a trail.
BLAM! A shotgun blast echoes through the valley below. We screech to a halt amid the claustrophobic brush. Now there is only the sound of our breathing, the resonation of the shotgun blast, the memory of the mountain lion’s growl.
The Ventana Wilderness is a jagged, inhospitable series of knife-edge ridges which relentlessly rise and plummet into narrow, wedge-shaped canyons. Hiking here can be brutal and dispiriting. I’ve hiked some of the world’s toughest backcountry—from Alaska to the Himalayas—but time and again the Ventana humbles me. More than once I have found myself on the verge of being broken deep in the wilderness—my legs trembling, my dehydrated brain swelling and my soul whipporwilling some shrill, sad song to the blank heavens above.
It can get desperate and ugly back in the Ventana. The promise of some unimaginable delight around the next bend, over the next ridge, down the next canyon can lure you further into the bush. Then, without warning, the sun is gone and you are seven miles and three ridges from either camp or car.
Yes, the land is rugged and steep and inaccessible. This is the place where rumors of “wild Indians” persisted into the 1940s. “I never saw them myself,” town folk whispered. “But my cousin saw them once and swore never to tell where they live.”
Like most rural legends, these tales of wild Indians were based in truth. As late as the 1850s there actually were rogue Esselen still hiding out from the Franciscans and their insane, oppressive god. Although these Native American rebels may have quietly passed from the historic record, their spirit inhabits these mountains to this day.
My photographer and I set out from the China Camp trailhead at Tassajara Road in good spirits. Skies are clear and the forecast calls for mild temperatures in the 80s—10 degrees cooler than normal for this time of year. Plus, we’ve heard there is a great deal of water to be found in the wilderness thanks to the unusually wet winter and spring, which is a relief.
photo: Angelina Shamrock
Usually, it is madness to venture too deep into the Ventana Wilderness this time of year. The exposed ridges and steep canyon walls bake in 90-plus-degree sun and transform an already-demanding hike into a Bataan-esque death march. Plus, the hot summer weather breeds impenetrable clouds of black flies and mosquitoes which can drive even the most seasoned of backcountry men utterly mad.
Yet as we ascend the back spine of the ridge, it feels more like late spring than late June. The ghosts of wildflowers still haunt the trailside and a cool breeze buffets the steep cliffs from the valley below.
We pass pine trees like charred skeletons, anguished impressions of themselves, forever polarized by the apocalyptic 1999 Tassajara wildfire. Yet a devastating blaze like the Tassajara is simply the land’s dying and reviving song—a brutal but replenishing scorch which creates new wildlife habitat while rejuvenating the Ventana’s remarkable vegetative diversity.
The trail hugs a high line across the ridge. Far below on the other side of the valley, we see the remarkable granite turrets and buttresses of the Church Creek rock formations. We pause to admire a 14-foot flowering yucca. Its cream-colored blossoms sprout from a thick stalk which stands like a spear driven vertically into the plant’s big round foot of spines.
The views are astonishing. The sharp southern ridges are stacked behind each other like a 1,000-foot set of waves. From here, it’s clear how the Esselen could hide from the Spanish, whose horses were more of liability than an asset in this radically vertical terrain. My eyes return to my feet just in time to see a huge rattlesnake grudgingly haul its thick, sluggish length off the sun-baked trail and back into the brush.
The air cools as we descend into the wooded creek basin where the Pine Ridge, Church Creek and Pine Valley trails meet. We turn west and follow the flow of cold, clear water towards Pine Valley. The creek is gurgling and thick clouds of ladybugs hover languidly along the trail. Glossy poison oak chokes the space along the creek banks and smooth, dark manzanita trees intertwine luridly with the staid bay and oak. After a leisurely two-and-a-half-mile stroll we emerge from the cool, fern-and-poison oak-dappled trail and into a breathtakingly serene and empty valley.
Pine Valley seems more like the Sierra Nevada than a coastal mountain valley. Great turrets of granite overlook a savannah of golden grass and fading purple wildflowers. The crystal clear creek meanders between a dense row of tall ponderosa pine.
Roughly Enough: Jack English’s homestead includes a well-stocked workshop where he crafts intricate bows for cellos and violins.
photo: Angelina Shamrock
The valley is an Eden. It is easy to imagine the Esselen thriving here, perhaps as many as 60 or 70 strong. After we set up camp beneath the towering pines, I wander out into the savannah and visualize these people how they must have been: eating, drinking, grinding acorns, drying meat, laughing, arguing, working, praying, playing, having babies, and dying.
If not exactly paradise, life must have been peaceful in this valley. At least, until the Spanish showed up. According to local archaeologists Gary Breschini and Trudy Haversat, Mission records indicate that Juniperro Serra baptized a 40-year-old man named Pach-hepas, the chief of the Excelen, a sub-group of the Esselen, on May 9, 1775 at Cachagua. This infamous footnote in history marks the point at which things went momentously downhill for Pach-hepas’ people.
“There is evidence of skirmishes between soldiers and the Excelen which resulted in a number of fatalities, and possibly removal of many of their children to the Mission,” Breschini and Haversat write. “The Excelen’s response was twofold: about half of the group surrendered almost immediately to the missionaries, while other members appear to have sought refuge in the distant mountains.”
Those distant mountains were the Ventana Wilderness, where the “rogue Indians” hid for the next three generations. When the missions finally freed the Indians they hadn’t already killed off or worked to death in the 1830s, those who’d escaped capture by hiding in the Ventana eventually filtered back out of the mountains to rejoin their families or work on the ranches.
But the mountains didn’t stay uninhabited for long. Homesteaders began to appear in the rugged backcountry around the time of the Civil War. Today, most of these homesteads are faint memories, yet in Pine Valley, one still exists. Tucked into the far corner of the valley, where the Carmel River trail approaches from the northwest, there is a small cabin, and in it lives an honest-to-God homesteader.
On our way to the Bear Basin trailhead, which we’ve decided to hike this afternoon, we pass the gate to the homestead. There are no signs of life.
“There’s no light to shoot. It’s all washed out and murky,” my photographer says, grimacing out at the seemingly endless rows of toothy Ventana ridge around us.
It took hours to climb out of Pine Valley, where we made our base camp, and back up to the Pine Ridge trail via the lonely, neglected and nearly lost-for-all-time Bear Basin trail. Heads down, arms constantly stroking, we’d waded through the steep, heavily overgrown trail. At times, the only indication we were not completely lost was a bit of fluorescent flagging. In contrast, when we finally reached the junction of the wide and luxurious Pine Ridge trail, it was like merging from a deer trail onto Interstate 5.
Our original goal was to summit the South Ventana Cone before sunset. Or, failing this, at least reach the Black Cone trailhead. But now the light is dying and we are exhausted. According to the map, we are miles from anywhere.
“And I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere,” my photographer adds for good measure.
I nod. The South Ventana Cone wavers distantly in the molten late afternoon light. It is too hot, the way too far. It would crush us. I picture descending Bear Basin Trail at night and that clinches it.
“I think we’ve seen enough of the Pine Ridge Trail,” I agree.
Soon we are sinking back down through the steroidal vegetation. The way is much easier to lose from this direction and at times we simply let momentum dictate the trail. It’s an organic maze that must be Braille-read. Where the vegetation gives, we go. When we run into thick, impassable clumps, we realize we’ve lost the trail and backtrack. It’s a long process made all the longer by my rapidly-flagging calf muscles, which are beginning to feel like the stringy black cords inside a blown-out bungee cord.
Flailing through the dense chaparral jungle that passes for a trail, I silently salute members of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance and the Stevenson Wilderness Expedition who take the time to hike out here with heavy loppers and keep the chamise, scrub oak and Ceanothus at bay. Their work is hard and thankless, but instrumental to keeping the Ventana Wilderness accessible.
Periodically, the trail comes up for air and we find ourselves quickly moving along good tread. At one point, the trail passes a small clearing dominated by a wide shady oak. As we pass, a low rumbling growl emanates from the clearing for a long count of three, a branch loudly snaps and then there is silence. Instinctively, I screech to a halt and scan the clearing for signs of the mountain lion. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up and my heart races. I can’t see it, but I’m sure it’s there looking at me. When I’ve scared my photographer sufficiently, I signal her to raise her arms and keep moving. We hurry down the trail, away from the ominous oak tree.
Here’s what may have happened: a mountain lion warned us with a low growl, then silently leapt up into one of the low-lying branches of the oak tree to attain the high ground. My photographer and I raised our arms to look larger and hurried down the trail away from the clearing. Soon we resubmerged ourselves into the claustrophobic overgrowth and the hike acquired the feel of a bad suspense movie.
Here’s what probably happened: my photographer and I hurried down the trail into the oak clearing where we flushed two quail. In flight, their wings beat in tandem with a low baritone growl reminiscent of a mountain lion. We raised our arms and acted like fools and rushed away down the trail, frightened by two birds.
Needless to say, I didn’t actually see the well-hidden mountain lion and now my memory of the incident is equally camouflaged in doubt. I’ll never know for sure whether a mountain lion was crouched up in that oak tree or not, but I do know this—the big cats are out there and they are thriving.
As we descend back into the valley, our private meditations on the prospect of being eaten alive are suddenly broken by the loud report of a shotgun. The homesteader appears to be armed and willing to shoot. My photographer just shakes her head and says nothing, intent now on getting back to the camp. As we pass the gate which leads up to the homestead on our way into the valley, I glance up towards the cabin but again, I see no signs of life. I note, however, that whatever the homesteader was shooting at seems to be satisfactorily shot.
After a quick soak in the cold creek, we make dinner and rest our aching bodies in the warm light of a fading evening sun. A languid blizzard of gnats and No-See-Ums drift in the field, but the mosquitoes are tolerable, the black flies sleepy. And when the sun finally disappears behind the western rim of the valley, the insects are completely gone.
When we awake, the valley is hushed and cool and awash in long morning shadows. As we eat breakfast, the temperature begins to climb. It’s going to be a hot one. We wash up and head down the creek to find Pine Valley Falls.
On our way past the homesteader’s cabin, I see a faint trail of smoke rising from the chimney. Maybe we’ll stop on the way back, I say, still thinking about the shotgun blast resounding through the valley the previous evening. Then again, if the guy’s taken the trouble to live all the way out here, he obviously wants his privacy.
The trail down to the falls is only 0.7 miles from the valley, but it constantly crisscrosses the creek and skirts the high, steep and crumbly canyon walls. It swishes through poison oak and scurries under logs and over slick rock. It clambers down eroding soil and across twisted roots and around crystal pools of water. And the farther the creek descends, the bigger it becomes. The pools swell, the crossings widen, the sound of rushing water grows louder and louder until the whole river disappears over a steep granite edge with a majestic roar.
My photographer and I gingerly gaze over the edge of the waterfall. Fifty feet below, the water thunders into a deep, emerald pool. The climb down to the pool is a bit precarious, but the water’s green allure is irresistible. When we reach the bottom, the sun is just getting high enough to sew beads of sparkling diamond and gold into the falling water.
Dazzled, I immediately strip down, dive in, and immediately find that, although immensely beautiful, the water is so cold my skull feels as if will open with a deafening glacial crack. Of course, the experience is made all the more unbearable by my photographer’s insistence that I swim about and climb on the rocks and jump in the water for her camera like some kind of circus orangutan. These journalistic duties performed, I crawl out of the water and shiver meekly on the rocks.
Returning from the falls, our curiosity gets the better of us and we decide to sneak up and take a peek at the homestead. Set against a Gene Autry backdrop of spectacular granite and ponderosa pine, the small, stout cabin looks solidly built and well kept.
When we get close enough to take some photos we see movement through the window. The door suddenly opens and an old man shuffles out on to the porch.
“Come on, then!” he calls out.
Neither of us make a move. By the tone of his voice, it’s hard to tell if he’s welcoming us in or is luring us to our doom with a nonchalant, if slightly resigned, cool.
“Come on!” he calls again.
Feeling a bit like Hansel and Gretel, we approach the cabin, climb its steep stairs and follow this man into the cabin with a shake of his strong, rough hand. As our eyes adjust to the dark, the homesteader shuts the door behind us and throws the deadbolt closed with an ominous finality.
As it turns out, it is his birthday. Jack English, Pine Valley’s lone resident, turns 86 today and he’s glad to have the company. He offers us hot Lipton tea and a cookie, apologizing that there isn’t more.
“I’m not here to get away from people. I’m here to get away from that mess out there,” he tells us. “What bothers me is the congestion. It’s getting so I don’t even want to go out there again.”
Jack first came to Pine Valley 75 years ago on a hunting trip when he was an 11-year-old boy. “My brother’s wife’s father-in-law brought me in deer hunting on Labor Day,” he remembers. “I came here a lot over the years. Mostly to hunt. We used to hunt mountain lions.”
In the early 1970s, when the old lady who owned the homestead passed, Jack and his wife Mary bought the five-acre place at an auction.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” he says. “It was part of an old homestead originally built back during the Civil War. There used to be a lot of homesteads in these mountains. Not anymore.”
Today, Jack still hikes the five or so miles in and out to where he leaves his car at the Church Ranch with as much as 50 pounds on his back.
“I used to leave my car up at China Camp until some kids shot it full of holes and pushed it over the cliff,” he says.
In addition to the provisions he hikes out for once every two months or so, he also has friends like Esselen descendent Fred Nason and archaeologists Gary Breschini and Trudy Haversat who periodically bring him things he needs.
His family also visits every once in a while. He’s looking forward to seeing his granddaughter, who will be coming out to spend 10 days with him soon. Nonetheless, it still gets lonely for Jack. Mostly because he misses his wife.
“My problem is I lost my partner,” Jack says nodding up at a black-and-white photo of a young, beautiful woman. “That’s Mary up there. We were married almost 60 years. Her advice was simple: Be clean and tell the truth. That’s it. Do that and you’ll be fine in life.”
Jack tells us he married Mary in 1942. Six months later he went to war and spent the next three years in the South Pacific working in the Stevedore battalion of the 3rd Marine Division. He loaded and unloaded cargo under heavy fire in such war-torn ports as Guadalcanal, Saipan, and New Caledonia.
“I didn’t have to fight, I was working, but you come under fire regardless,” he says. “The worst were the kamikaze pilots late in the war. When they came in there was nothing you could do but hope they didn’t hit you.”
“Now all my friends are gone,” he says. “There are a lot of ghosts. I’m the only one left.”
Mary, Jack tells us, died of ovarian cancer four years ago—an ordeal he calls the worst of his life. As a result, he despises doctors and hospitals. “I’d rather die here than in some hospital,” he says.
Nonetheless, he implores my photographer to get checked on a regular basis.
“You need to catch it early as you can,” he tells her. “There are no promises they’ll catch it. They missed it with my Mary, but you need to get looked at. Promise me you’ll go get checked.”
My photographer promises him she’ll get checked and this seems to make him feel better. After a moment’s pause he asks us if we’d like to see his bows.
“I stay busy making bows,” Jack says, his eyes lighting up. “Violin bows, cello bows. You know, for music.”
Jack gets up and takes a dirty white PVC pipe down off his bookshelf, pops the cap off it with the hilt of his knife, and withdraws the most exquisite cello bow I’ve ever seen in my life. The wood is dark and spotted. Its handle has an ornate inlay of Southwestern Native American design.
“It’s made out of snakewood,” he says with pride. “A little too heavy for the classical musicians, but the bluegrass players love it.”
Jack’s been making bows for 25 years. His son, Dennis, is a three-time state fiddle champion. He also makes bows out of Pernambuco, a lighter, Brazilian wood traditionally used for violin bows. A rough blank of Pernambuco is $150. Jack’s bows are so finely crafted that members of the Monterey Symphony play with them, but he insists he does it simply to keep busy.
Nonetheless, the way he handles the delicate instruments is a revelation. His fingers’ hard, dirty and calloused nubs barely seem capable of dialing a telephone, let alone inlaying tiny, fitted stones into a thin strip of wood.
Jack leads us outside so we can take a look at the bow in the sunlight. While we’re out there, he shows us his garden where he’s growing sweet corn and strawberries. “Mary was the gardener. I just do what I can,” he says.
He also has an amazingly well-stocked wood shop. A carpenter by trade, Jack appears capable of constructing and maintaining everything he needs out here, though he admits he’s not as self-sufficient as he once was.
Three years ago Jack made the local papers when he broke his pelvis in a fall while trying to get a chainsaw out of the attic. He had to be flown out to the hospital at Stanford. Now he has a satellite phone in case of just such an emergency and he calls his son once a week.
The remark reminds me about the gunshot we heard the previous evening and I ask him about it.
“Oh, I was shooting the blue jays. They were trying to eat my berries,” Jack says sheepishly. “I don’t like to shoot them. They’re just out here trying to survive too. But I just got ticked off.”
Before we go, Jack takes us down to look at a bedrock mortar on the lower part of the homestead property. It’s a large, flat boulder with nearly 20 bowls that have been worn into the granite by centuries of use. One of the Esselen’s primary food sources were acorns, but the tough, stringy, poisonous nuts had to be processed and ground and leeched to make them edible. The Indians would spend hours and hours on rocks like these talking and grinding. Jack calls this particular mortar “Gossip Rock.”
As we stand around talking about time and archaeology, the topic turns to Jack’s plans for the future.
“How long I’m going to stay, I don’t know. You start getting old, you know? But I have nothing to complain about,” Jack says. “I had a good life.”
We bid Jack English a happy birthday and leave him standing beside that ancient grinding stone, gingerly holding his snakewood cello bow. Walking back to our camp through the fading purple wildflowers and golden grass of Pine Valley, I find I have to agree with Jack. The man’s had a very good life.
photo: Angelina Shamrock